Saturday, December 24, 2016

Burn Your Buche and Eat It Too!

Christmas is my favorite holiday! After all, it's the only day of the year that I can splurge with such scrumptious holiday faire such as Boeuf en Croute, Gratin Dauphinois, Chocolate Truffles au Naturel, Seven Layer Jello, and the iconic French Christmas cake "Buche de Noel!" So, why do the French celebrate Christmas with a cake that looks like a log? It actually began as a pagan tradition where the largest log possible (perhaps bearing roots and all) was wrangled inside to provide warmth and blessings on the winter solstice (the longest night of the year). As it burned, the log was pushed deeper and deeper into the hearth to hopefully burn for 12 hours. When the log was finished burning, the ashes were collected for use all through the year. At the time there were strong beliefs that the ashes were magical! Some of the ashes were saved to spread over the fields to ensure a generous harvest, some were used to protect the house from lightning during strong storms, and some were kept to ward off evil!
Booze and fire! What could go wrong?
When Christianity emerged, the Yule log ritual was merged with Christmas and the custom shifted to Christmas Eve. It is rumored that it was Napoleon who spurred the invention of the cake, by outlawing open chimneys in the winter, which he believed was causing disease. Or, perhaps it was the increasing use of small coal stoves as a heat source, which began as a result of wood shortages. Another theory is that it was virtually impossible to drag logs up urban Parisian stairways, if they even had a fireplace. Whichever theory you choose to believe, The Buche de Noel's popularity began in 19th century France and remains an essential Christmas tradition to this day.

This decadent recipe for Buche de Noel is from the brilliant Jean-Christophe Novelli, former personal chef to the Rothschild family and owner of the world renowned Novelli Academy. Who better than a Frenchman to provide an authentic recipe! Don't let this cake scare you. It really is just a simple sponge roulade, filled and covered with buttercream frosting. The recipe calls for chestnut puree, which can be difficult to find in American grocers. You can just omit the chestnut puree, or you can adjust the flavors to your desire, e.g., coffee and Kahlua, almond and Amaretto, cherries and Kirsch, etc. In addition, meringue mushrooms and a snowy dusting of powdered sugar and cocoa make a spectacular presentation!


Buche de Noel

*Get out your kitchen scale! (See Gadgets.)

Ingredients:
For the Cake:
7 ounces/200 grams all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
7 eggs, separated
8 ounces/225 grams castor/granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 tablespoons cocoa powder
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon (I omit.)
6 tablespoons castor/granulated sugar (for dusting tea towel)

For the Filling/Frosting:
1 lb, 5 ounces/600 grams 70% bitter chocolate (or the best quality you can find)
9 ounces/250 grams unsalted butter, at room temperature
5 ounces/140 grams icing/powdered/confectioners sugar
2 ounces/60 grams sweetened chestnut puree (You can omit completely, or alter to your preference, see above.)
5 tablespoons whisky (or whatever you choose)

Directions:
For the Cake:
Preheat oven to 375 degrees, and line a 17x11x1-inch jelly roll pan with parchment paper.

Sift the flour, baking powder, cocoa, and salt together in a bowl, set aside.

In a stand mixer, beat the egg yolks and half (4 ounces) of the sugar with a whisk until doubled in volume. Add the dry ingredients and fold in. Add the vanilla and cinnamon (if using). The mixture will be very stiff. (I transfer the mixture to the largest bowl I have, so I can use my mixer for beating the egg whites.)

In a stand mixer, whisk the egg whites with a pinch of salt until they form soft peaks. Add the remaining (4 ounces) sugar and whisk until the egg whites (meringue) form stiff peaks.

Stir 1/3rd of the meringue mixture into the egg yolk/cocoa mixture to soften it. Then gently fold the rest of the meringue mixture in two stages, carefully so as to retain as much air as possible.

Spread the mixture into the lined pan and bake for 8-15 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean.

Dust a tea towel with the 6 tablespoons sugar and turn the cooked sponge onto it. Carefully remove the parchment paper and quickly roll (long side to long side) the cake up into a log. Although it will seem like a lot of sugar, it makes a lovely crust on the cake. Don't worry if the cake cracks a bit as it rolls up, it will all be covered by the frosting. Set aside to cool before filling and frosting.

For the Filling/Frosting:
Melt the chocolate in double boiler. (If you don't have one, set a metal bowl over a pot of simmering water. See Gadgets.)

In a stand mixer, beat the butter and 5 ounces icing sugar together. Add the chestnut puree (if using) and continue to mix to a  smooth, spreadable paste. Gradually incorporate the melted chocolate and allow to cool to room temperature.

Finishing the Cake:
When the sponge has cooled, unroll it carefully. (Again, any cracks don't matter.) Brush with half the whisky (or whatever you desire).

Spread some of the filling evenly over the sponge to within about 2 cm from each edge. Using the tea towel to assist, roll the sponge back up and brush liberally with the rest of the whisky and allow to soak in.

Trim the ends and use these to form branches by placing back onto the log. (You can use some of the buttercream to help "glue" them on.)

Use the remaining filling to generously coat the cake all over. Use the tines of a fork to give a bark effect.

Dust with powdered sugar and cocoa and decorate with meringue mushrooms. Proudly serve with a smile!

Joyeux Noel!

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